Guitar Hero: Ringside with Silver Sircus

Paths cross. It’s a scene. These things come about. 1999 I was asked to play guitar in a band called Shugafix, so I did. I knew the folks fairly well and wondered what it would be like to be an accompanist/band member rather than singer/songwriter, as well as playing electric guitar, which was not something I did much.

I’d made soundtracks and played in Watertower with Brett(guit/bass/songs), he’s played with James Lees (drums/keyboards/songs) and Lucinda Shaw (vocals/songs)  in ISIS, a successful Brisband. On cello was David Sills who was also a member of Friends of the Iguana’s 2nd lineup. Madelaine joined on cello later. I’d sung in a choir for a live version of Bohemian Rhapsody that Isis had attempted, and appeared in one of their music videos

Isis were quite popular. Silver Sircus’s  songs were more of an experimental mixture, often arty or even spoken word. They were reaching towards something epic, at other times more PJ Harvey in a bad mood.

I’d borrowed a digital effects unit. Freed from the need to ‘perform’ directly to an audience  I experimented with volume swells and twinkling washes of guitar.  Whatever the song needed. James and Lucinda seemed to lead things. Sometimes it was hard to work out the undercurrents in the band room. Friends of the Iguana were pretty pernickety as we worked out what went where in arranging the music. This was looser.

Gigs were kind of fun. There was a Velvet Underground style seriousness to the band’s stage presence, enhanced by projections, and Lucinda’s approach to performance. She didn’t seem worried about assuming the persona of a lead singer, assuming a stillness and power that said ‘look at me’. Makes sense for a lead singer, but it was a new one for me, especially observing it from the side. Here’s the current lineup of the group performing Sovereignty, a fixture of the set when I was in the band.

I wasn’t sure what the songs were about but that didn’t matter so much as it was more about invoking mood,  which the band did majestically at times. There was a theatrical commitment to the musical moment that at times lifted it into the extraordinary. One tune,  Sweet Amnesia had a sprawling chord sequence (written on cello and not unlike a Smiths song I quite liked called Last Night I Dreamt that Somebody Loved Me) where I took a risk and went the full Jonny Greenwood. I let the sound instruct my body, occasionally getting close to ‘guitar hero’ poses.

it's a game

it’s a game

As most guitar players know, it actually doesn’t take much effort to make a sound with the instrument. All the jumping,  bashing,  thrashing, leaning and gurning is about ‘performance’, not getting a sound happening. There’s another level to this,  however,  which is that it’s much harder to play the guitar with precision while carrying on like this,  so there’s a kind of ‘internal virtuosity’ going on – it can look like the music’s exerting power over the musician when in fact the reverse is taking place. I was nowhere near that level,  but got a sense of it.

Just as in the game Guitar Hero, there’s a disconnect between the stiff fantasy images onscreen and the slack-jawed button pressing in the lounge-room,  and neither’s got much to do with music. In Simon Frith’s book Performing Rites he explores Paul Eckman’s spectrum of body language from everyday, “…spontaneous body utterances” to “…symbolic body movements [where] the body is “simply being used as an instrument to write with,  a site to write on.”

Philip Auslander, in his book Performing Glam Rock (it’s a text of analysis – not a ‘how to!’) compares and contrasts two filmed performances of the same Mark Bolan song, and puts his guitar poses under the microscope. In the earlier performance, pre-superstardom, his gestures are determined largely by the simple dictates of rhythm and straightforward demands of holding down or changing a chord. Only a few years later, the guitar is a phallic weapon, a tool for performance which inspires a flamboyant over-playing of the instrument that’s less about music and more about show-biz. The upshot is (if you discount old-fashioned ideas of ‘authenticity’) neither approach is better or worse, just more context-appropriate.

I wasn’t thinking in these terms at the time, of course. Whatever the genre, you can be sure there’s less guitar posing going on in the rehearsal room.  The performance is a pose. Even to choose not to pose is to pose,  I suppose.

My amp: a Vox Cambridge 30

My amp: a Vox Cambridge 30, yesterday.

But standing on the sticky-carpeted stage in the middle of a big Silver Sircus song, you’re part of the ensemble, part of the music. As a guitarist you’re also in an embodied dialogue with the sounds you’re creating. Among all the other noise, you’re standing in a field of sound created by your amplifier, instrument and feedback. You can respond physically to this sound. Exploring this field of sounds can dictate your staged movements. Even if it’s just bending to listen to your own amp.

This was the loudest band I’d played in. However I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself  so I  rarely turned it up to ’11’. I had a sense of wanting to push into new territory with my playing and performance , but also didn’t want to look like a nincompoop.

Bhairav-Attributes-KaliFrankly I’ve never ‘rocked’ convincingly and have a certain amount of respect for those who can pull it off. (and I use that phrase advisedly) The one time Silver Sircus played ‘acoustically’ at The Zoo,  I recall really going for it on the 12-string (in a song called Kali), and the feel was closer to some of the Irish jam nights I’d played, leaning right into the song, playing fast and hard and wild and tight. Music’s acoustic manifestation was more familiar to me, where the effort in playing corresponded more directly to the output of sound.

But with my Fender copy electric strapped on and fed through an effects unit, it was fun to play around with texture, intensity and volume. The songs weren’t that hard to play, so I was able to carve and fill a slot in the group’s arrangements. I could play with my back to the audience, focusing on what the reverb unit and amplifier were doing, or tune in to what the other group members were doing. Meet the eyes of the other players in for the count-in. A quick nod and smile at the end of the song said ‘that was good’. (or not)

We played half-a dozen times at The Zoo in 1999-2001. By the end the group was called Silver Sircus (there was an American band called Sugar Fix,  apparently) and I don’t remember why we stopped. I never ‘left’, and nothing was ‘brought to a close’. The gigs just stopped. After a break, the group continued with other musicians around the core of Lucinda and James. They’re still going, and are  releasing some of the songs we played back then, but with a bigger lineup and smoother,  dreamier,  more sound-tracky vibe. James now also plays with naughty nauticals The Good Ship. Among many other things.

Looking back at the period I  was involved in Silver Sircus,  I can now see that the songwriting core of the group (Lucinda and James and Brett) were  searching for a sound, and experimenting with how the sound they found spoke back to the songwriting.

As far as I know there’s no video, audio,  or photos from this time. That may be a good thing. Maybe the dynamic rock poses I thought I was invoking looked more like a slight crouch. I was working from the inside out rather than the outside in. Maybe one day I’ll give the reverse approach a go.  I was in the middle of  a mid-period line-up. I was fine to be alongside of it,  rather than at the centre of it.

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